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‘Fred’s’ Lucas Cruikshank building a tween empire

Parents, beware! The children of America are sneaking onto your laptops and borrowing your iPhones to watch an addictive, viral video campaign. Fortunately, the purveyor of these videos is neither a political extremist nor a sexual predator, but instead a cheerful, ambitious teenager from the Midwest named Lucas Cruikshank.

A 17-year-old high school junior, Cruikshank lives with his large, happy family in Nebraska. For the last few years, he has been posting homemade videos to YouTube as his alter ego, an insane 6-year-old named Fred Figglehorn. Via a digitally sped-up voice and a manic persona, Fred repels adults while delighting kids with his high-pitched lunacy.

Thanks to that pied-piper Web series, Cruikshank is a folk hero of tween culture; his devoted followers a pint-sized answer to Lady Gaga’s little monsters. His YouTube channel has nearly 2 million subscribers and his videos have been watched nearly 600 million times in the last five years.


FOR THE RECORD:
Lucas Cruikshank: An article about teen actor Lucas Cruikshank in the Sept. 16 Calendar section identified the executive producer of his TV movie for Nickelodeon, “Fred: The Movie,” as Brian Williams. His name is Brian Robbins. —


On the strength of his online fan base, Nickelodeon has snapped up Cruikshank and given him his very own multi-camera, multi-actor TV movie, “Fred” (premiering Saturday), as well as a Mork-and-Mindy-esque sitcom called “Marvin, Marvin,” scheduled for 2011.

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Cruikshank’s homemade videos are simple: Fred goes swimming in a kiddie pool (5 million people watched that one; 25,000 were moved to comment); he stalks his crush, Judy. Many of the videos are unexpectedly edgy. Fred’s mother is an alcoholic. Fred is full of rage and almost definitely ADHD; he has a tendency to forgo his meds.

Cruikshank, in other words, has more range than a parent might guess from the shrill voice emanating from the family computer.

“People like her deserve to have some sense knocked into them — and by knocked into them, I mean with a bat,” Fred says of his therapist in the video “Fred Sees a Therapist” “Just kidding, obviously!” he chirps, then looks menacingly into the camera to suggest that he is not kidding at all.

“My real family is the complete opposite of Fred’s,” said a friendly, normal-voiced Cruikshank by phone. “There are eight kids in my family. My family is awesome. Everyone was asking my mom, ‘Aren’t you so mad that he’s talking about you like that?’ and she said, ‘It’s not me! It’s Fred talking about his mom!’”

Cruikshank’s mother, a nurse, and his father, an engineer, famously gave him a video camera on his 13th birthday.

The fact that Fred speaks directly to kids, from his bedroom to theirs, makes him feel more like a friend than like a tween idol on the model of the Jonas Brothers or Miley Cyrus. In the land of positive-message-laden kids TV, Fred is a force for giddy anarchy.

Cruikshank’s Twitter feed and interviews suggest he’s a humble, oh-golly innocent. “Before Fred took off, I’d never been on a plane before,” Cruikshank said. “I’d never seen the ocean.” On Twitter, he writes things like: “Just had crème brûlée for the first time. YuM.”

In fact, Cruikshank is also intensely ambitious. “I always had the dream of being an actor,” he said. “I had a really strong drive. I was looking online for auditions in Nebraska. I wanted to do it so bad.”

Several years ago, he began creating videos with his cousins for their collective YouTube channel, JKL. The page was getting so much traffic (thanks largely to Cruikshank’s “Fred” videos) that YouTube contacted them to arrange an ad partnership. Ad revenue amounted to approximately $2,000 a month, according to Cruikshank’s former business manager, James Dolin of Sonesta Entertainment in Santa Monica.

Noting the massive organic traffic to JKL and its source, Dolin contacted Cruikshank about spinning off his own YouTube channel focused entirely on the Fred character. In May 2007, Cruikshank abandoned the 27.5 million-views he’d racked up on JKL and started from scratch. Dolin produced the first two seasons on “Fred’s” YouTube page, and helped secure a licensing deal for everything from T-shirts to plush dolls to talking pens, as well as a deal promoting the sci-fi film " City of Ember.”

Even before Dolin, Cruikshank was finding ways to monetize the channel. In a somewhat clunky product placement deal, Fred hawked the messaging device Zipit. Under the guidance of a new manager, Evan Weiss, who has been with him the last year-and-a-half, there was a 2009 Christmas album, “It’s Hackin’ Christmas with Fred.”

Guest appearances on the popular tween shows “Hannah Montana” and “iCarly” set the stage for “Fred: The Movie,” which was conceived and developed by Brian Robbins, who produced “Smallville” and “One Tree Hill” and was once a kid star himself, playing Eric on “Head of the Class.” The film brings the off-camera figures to life with actors (the professional wrestler John Cena plays Fred’s father) and follows a traditional boy-woos-girl plot.

Why not just let Fred run around spazzing out to a hand-held camera? “A 93-minute Fred video does not a movie make,” explains Weiss. He calls his client “an exciting property with an extraordinary following.”

The movie, predictably, offers a more placid version of Fred’s weird universe. He is 15, not 6, and — judging by the décor — richer than his video predecessor. Judy, played by British pop star Pixie Lott, is ridiculously hot. Fashionable outsider Bertha (played by “iCarly’s” Jennette McCurdy) is the closest thing Fred has to a friend — and the girl he would wind up with if this were a John Hughes movie.

Cruikshank and his manager are eager to keep his career moving seamlessly toward mainstream comedy stardom, via kid-TV fame — and more licensing. There are suddenly “Party Packs” of downloads and merchandise available on FredFigglehorn.com. The Fred video posted Monday features a guest appearance by Weezer (and an ad for Allstate). His CD “Who’s Ready to Party?” drops Tuesday.

“I like to make people laugh,” Cruikshank says, “but I want to do other things too, and challenge myself. I really like Judd Apatow. I want to write movies and act in them. And I’d like to try directing too. I like Will Ferrell, Jim Carrey, Steve Carell, Ben Stiller.”

Cruikshank says he now regrets joking to a CNN anchor that he might gruesomely murder Fred. (He was subsequently barraged with frantic petitions to let Fred live). And yet: “I don’t want to keep on doing Fred until there’s nothing left,” he says. “Hopefully, my fans will continue to follow my career after Fred.”

As Miley Cyrus knows, growing out of tween stardom without losing a young fan base is a nearly unprecedented hat trick. But Cruikshank has a better shot than most. “He’s got a pretty grounded family, a good mom and dad,” says “Fred: The Movie” executive producer Brian Williams. “I give him a very good chance of survival.”

calendar@latimes.com


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